Between 1911 and 1914, the Royal Aircraft Factory used the F.E.2 (Farman Experimental 2) designation for three quite different aircraft that shared only a common Farman pusher biplane layout.
The third “F.E.2” type was operated as a day and night bomber and fighter by the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War.
Along with the single-seat D.H.2 pusher biplane and the Nieuport 11, the F.E.2 was instrumental in ending the Fokker Scourge that had seen the German Air Service establish a measure of air superiority on the Western Front from the late summer of 1915 to the following spring.
The Farman Experimental 2 designation refers to three quite distinct designs, all pushers based on the general layout employed by the French aircraft designers, the Farman Brothers, but otherwise completely different aircraft.
This “re-use” of the F.E.2 designation has caused much confusion.
The original F.E.1 was rebuilt in August 1911 as the F.E.2, as it crashed and was deemed parts only, In fact it was a rebuild in name only, as it was a completely new design, incorporating few if any actual components of the original.
The original Iris engine, seriously damaged in the F.E.1 crash, was replaced by a 50 hp. Gnome rotary engine, a two seater nacelle was fitted, and the fore elevator was replaced with one incorporated into a sesquiplane tail in the conventional manner.
In this form many tests were carried out, including the fitting of a Maxim machine gun, and seaplane trials, it being fitted with a single central float.
At this point the F.E.2 was powered by a 70 hp (52 kW) Gnome.
The first F.E.2 was designed by Geoffrey de Havilland at the Royal Aircraft Factory in 1911.
The new aircraft resembled the final form of the F.E.1, with no front elevator, but seated a crew of two in a wood and canvas nacelle, and was powered by a 50 hp (37 kW) Gnome rotary engine.
It made its maiden flight on 18 August 1911, flown by de Havilland.
It was fitted with floats in April 1912, first flying in this form on 12 April 1912, but was underpowered and its engine was therefore replaced by a 70 hp (52 kW) Gnome, this allowed it to take off carrying a passenger while fitted with floats.
Later in the year the F.E.2, refitted with a landplane undercarriage, was modified to carry a Maxim machine gun on a flexible mount in the nose.
The second F.E.2 was officially a rebuild of the first F.E.2, and may indeed have included some components from the earlier aircraft.
It was, however, a totally new and much more modern design, larger and heavier than the 1911 aircraft, with the wingspan increased from 33 ft (10.06 m) to 42 ft (12.80 m) and a new, more streamlined nacelle.
Loaded weight rose from 1,200 lb (545 kg) to 1,865 lb (848 kg).
The new F.E.2 used the outer wings of the B.E.2a, with wing warping instead of ailerons for lateral control, and was powered by a 70 hp Renault engine.
It was destroyed when it spun into the ground from 500 ft (150 m) on 23 February 1914, probably because of insufficient fin area.
The pilot, R. Kemp, survived the crash, but his passenger was killed.
Work started on another totally new design in mid-1914, the F.E.2a, specifically intended as a “fighter”, or machine gun carrier, in the same class as the Vickers FB.5 “Gunbus”.
Apart from the “Farman” layout it bore no direct relationship with either of the two earlier designs: the outer wing panels were identical with those of the B.E.2c.
It was a two-seater with the observer in the nose of the nacelle and the pilot sitting above and behind.
The observer was armed with a .303 in Lewis machine gun firing forward on a specially designed, “witches broomstick” mounting that gave it a wide field of fire.
The first production order for 12 aircraft was placed “off the drawing board” (i.e. prior to first flight) shortly after the outbreak of the First World War.
By this time, the “pusher” configuration was aerodynamically obsolescent, but was retained to allow a clear forward field of fire.
The undercarriage of the “third” F.E.2 was particularly well designed – a small nose wheel prevented nose-overs when landing on soft ground, and the oleo type shock absorbers were also appreciated by crews landing in rough, makeshift fields.
In order to reduce weight and drag some of the production aircraft were fitted with a normal “V” type undercarriage.
This was not universally popular and when a method was devised of removing the nose wheel in the field without disturbing the shock absorbers, this became the most common form of the F.E.2 undercarriage.
The “V” undercarriage remained standard for F.E.2 night bombers, as it permitted the carriage of a large bomb under the nacelle.
The first production batch consisted of 12 of the initial F.E.2a variant, with a large air brake under the top centre section, and a Green E.6 engine.
The first F.E.2a made its maiden flight on 26 January 1915, but was found to be underpowered, and was re-engined with a Beardmore 120 hp (89 kW) liquid-cooled inline engine, as were the other eleven aircraft.
The F.E.2a was quickly followed by the main production model, the F.E.2b, again powered by a Beardmore, initially of 120 hp, although later F.E.2bs received the 160 hp (119 kW) model.
The air brake of the “A” failed to deliver a worthwhile reduction in the landing run and was omitted to simplify production.
The type could also carry an external bomb load, and was routinely fitted with a standard air-photography camera.
A total of 1,939 F.E.2bs were built, only a few of them at the Royal Aircraft Factory, as most construction was by private British manufacturers such as G & J Weir, Boulton & Paul Ltd and Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies.
Early in the F.E.2b’s career, a second Lewis gun was added in front of the pilot’s cockpit, on a high telescopic mounting so that the pilot could fire forward, over his observer’s head.
In practice, this gun was appropriated by the observers, especially when they discovered that by climbing onto the rim of their cockpits they could fire backwards over the top wing, to some extent overcoming the notorious deficiency of pusher types in rear defence, although even this failed to cover a very large blind spot under the tail.
The observer’s perch was a precarious one, especially when firing the rear gun, he was liable to be thrown out of his cockpit, although his view was excellent in all directions except directly to the rear.
The arrangement was described by Frederick Libby, an American ace who served as an F.E.2b observer in 1916
“When you stood up to shoot, all of you from the knees up was exposed to the elements. There was no belt to hold you.
Only your grip on the gun and the sides of the nacelle stood between you and eternity.
Toward the front of the nacelle was a hollow steel rod with a swivel mount to which the gun was anchored.
This gun covered a huge field of fire forward.
Between the observer and the pilot a second gun was mounted, for firing over the F.E.2b’s upper wing to protect the aircraft from rear attack .
Adjusting and shooting this gun required that you stand right up out of the nacelle with your feet on the nacelle coaming.
You had nothing to worry about except being blown out of the aircraft by the blast of air or tossed out bodily if the pilot made a wrong move.
There were no parachutes and no belts. No wonder they needed observers”.
The Royal Aircraft Factory was primarily a research establishment and other experiments were carried out using F.E.2bs, including the testing of a generator-powered searchlight attached between two .303 inch (7.7 mm) Lewis guns, apparently for night fighting duties.
The F.E.2c was an experimental night fighter and bomber variant of the F.E.2b, the main change being the switching of the pilot’s and observer’s positions so that the pilot had the best view for night landings.
Two were built in 1916, with the designation being re-used in 1918 for a similar night bomber version of the F.E.2b, which was used by 100 Squadron.
In the end, the observer-first layout was retained for the standard aircraft.
The final production model was the F.E.2d (386 built) which was powered by a Rolls-Royce Eagle engine with 250 hp (186 kW).
While the more powerful engine made little difference in maximum speed, especially at low altitude, it did improve altitude performance, with an extra 10 mph at 5,000 ft.
The Rolls-Royce engine also improved payload, so that in addition to the two observer’s guns, an additional one or two Lewis guns could be mounted to fire forward, operated by the pilot.
At least two F.E.2bs were fitted with 150 hp (110 kW) RAF 5 engines (a pusher version of the RAF 4 engine) in 1916 but no production followed.
The F.E.2h was an F.E.2 powered by a 230 hp (170 kW) Siddeley Puma.
The prototype (A6545) was converted in February 1918 by Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies, in the hope of producing a night fighter with superior performance.
When tested at Martlesham Heath, it proved to be little better than the F.E.2b.
Despite this, three more aircraft were converted to F.E.2h standard, these being fitted with a six pounder (57 mm) Davis gun, mounted to fire downwards for ground attack purposes.
While the F.E.2d was replaced by the Bristol Fighter, the older F.E.2b proved an unexpected success as a light tactical night bomber, and remained a standard type in this role for the rest of the war.
Its climb rate and ceiling were too poor for it to make a satisfactory night fighter.
32 ft 3 in (9.83 m)
47 ft 9 in (14.55 m)
12 ft 8 in (3.86 m)
494 sq ft (45.9 m2)
2,061 lb (935 kg)
3,037 lb (1,378 kg)
1 × Beardmore 6 cylinder water cooled inline piston engine,
160 hp (120 kW)
4 bladed wooden fixed pitch pusher propeller
91.5 mph (147.3 km/h, 79.5 kn)
11,000 ft (3,400 m)
Time to altitude
10,000 ft (3,048 m) in 39 minutes 44 seconds
6.15 lb/sq ft (30.0 kg/m2)
0.053 hp/lb (0.087 kW/kg)
1 or 2x .303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis gun for observer
(One mounted in front and one firing back over the top wing)
1 or 2 x .303 in (7.7 mm) Lewis gun sometimes mounted for the pilot’s use in the F.E.2d